An Analysis of the Developing Relationship Between Humanity and Technology
“You know, I can’t help feeling disappointed Ellie,” Doug told me. “I see how fast technology is moving and I just know that, as amazed as we feel, we’re going to get used to this way too quickly. One, two years at most, we’ll be taking this for granted. Our expectations for a satisfactory life will include dToos, just like hot showers and five hundred cable channels. And we’ll need to face the consequences.”
“And what will those be?”
“I can’t say exactly.” Doug stood to leave. “All I know is that when we add something this big into our lives, we’re going to give up something equally big.”
-Ebocloud, pg 342
The internet has taken over the world—in a manner of speaking. Do you want to know what your friends are doing? Check Facebook. Looking for the biggest news story? Twitter probably has it. Do you need to find the answer to a question? Use Google! Our way of life has become so intertwined with the internet that it is hard to tell one from the other. Our behaviors, our actions, even our jargon have adapted to make room for it –how often do you find yourself telling someone to “Google it”? Utilizing the affordances of the internet, such as usability and ease of access, have made our world seem simple and easy. Everything you could possibly need is a few keystrokes away. Indeed, the power of the internet combined with the convenience of delivery services means that people can live their entire lives without even leaving their homes. But, just as we have adapted to take advantage of the internet, it has also adapted to take advantage of us. Every time we log on, embedded programs called Cookies record and store our data. Everything from our names to recipes we’re trying to make to items we are looking to buy are all converted into bits and stored. Companies like Google and Facebook then take these precious bits and sell them to other corporations, who can use this to selectively advertise to people who would be more likely to buy their products. These bits are one of the unknown consequences of societal reliance on the internet, and—for the sake of this paper—on Google. Indeed, the cost of using Google and other platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, etc., is not worth the benefit these tools provide us. While we save time and money, the implications of society becoming completely reliant on these platforms is dire.
To understand the true costs of using Google, we must first understand what Siren Servers and Big Data are. Siren Servers, as Jaron Lanier offers in his novel Who Owns the Future,
An elite computer, or coordinated collection of computers, on a network…Siren Servers gather data from the network, often without having to pay for it. The data is analyzed using the most powerful available computers, run by the very best available technical people. The results of the analysis are kept secret, but are used to manipulate the rest of the world to advantage (61).
Whenever we use a website, these Siren Servers track everything we do and, like the definition says, use that information to their advantage. For example, say I was to search for “Tourist Attractions in Florida.” These Siren Servers would track that, as well as the links I clicked on for theme parks, beaches and hotels. After just a few clicks, I would begin to see target advertisements as I searched. Instead of just any ad, I would see deals for theme parks in Florida, blocks advertising cheap airfare to Orlando and Tampa, and travel packages to my destination. Its like Lanier says:
[Siren Servers are] a wannabe Maxwell’s Demon, separating the state of “one” from the state of “zero” for a while, at a cost. A computer on a network can also act like a wannabe demon if it tries to sort data from networked people into one or the other side of some imaginary door, while pretending there is no cost or risk involved (62).
Big Data uses Siren Servers to analyze immense quantities of data. Viktor Mayer-Schondberger offers this definition in Big Data:
Big data refers to things one can do at a large scale that cannot be done at a smaller one, to extract new insights or create new forms of value, in ways that change markets, organizations, the relationship between citizens and governments, and more (14)
As Siren Servers expand their network, more and more data is collected and trends are uncovered faster than ever. For example, Mayer-Schondberger talks about Big Data and the flu. By combing through billions of search terms, Google can actually detect the presence of flu in certain areas almost in real time. Before Big Data and Siren Servers, this would have involved doctor’s reports, statements given to health care officials and a lot of time, but now, several Google searches for flu symptoms are all that we need—a prime example of how Big Data directly affects the world we live in and allows us to be aware of changes in our surroundings as soon as they occr.
Using Siren Servers to analyze Big Data has turned into a market all on its own. By collecting information on its users and running this Big Data through the Siren Servers, Google is able to produce valuable information for itself and for other companies. Instead of having these companies advertise to the general public, Google can go through their stored data and find people who have indicated that they are interested in a specific product. Google can then connect the customer to a company that sells what the customer needs, increasing the chances that the company makes a sale. For example, my hypothetical trip to Florida. Google knew I was looking for something to do in Florida, and that I would therefore be more likely to buy products or services related to that. Vendors want this information, because they want to make as many sales as possible. So Google has turned this information into a product, which these companies can then buy and use to selectively advertise to their advantage.
One way to opt out of this is to give up Google. But who wants to do that? Google has taken our society to a place so far from where we were before that people aren’t so keen to go back. Thanks to the one and only Google, we have immense amounts of information at our disposal. The benefits of this transformation are highlighted in N. Katherine Hayles’ How We Think:
Perhaps the most significant [effect of technology] is the feeling one has that the world is at one’s fingertips. The ability to access and retrieve information on a global scale has a significant impact on how one thinks about one’s place in the world. I live in a small town in North Carolina, but thanks to the web, I do not feel the least isolated. I can access national news, compare it to international coverage, find arcane sources, look up information to fact-check a claim, and a host of other activities that would have taken days to in the pre-internet era instead of minutes, if indeed they could be done at all (2).
Google is allowing us to educate ourselves like never before. By Gregory Crane’s estimate, a person could read a maximum of about 25,000 books in their lifetime. By contrast, digitized texts that can be searched , analyzed and correlated by algorithms give us access to the information of hundreds of thousands of books, if not more (Hayles 27). Google allows us to read and learn, but it also allows us to be read and to educate others. As Hayles talks about on page 3 and 4, any scholarly article written in this day and age will soon find its way to the internet. There, the chances of it being read–whether it be searched for or just stumbled upon–are much higher than if it were simply printed in a journal. Indeed, the ability to directly access specific information rather than sifting through massive amounts to find the desired text is a huge advantage of Google, and one that has allowed Google to fast-track its way to a household tool.
After thinking of all these benefits, the idea of not using Google is laughable. Who cares if these companies are using our data to their advantage…in fact, isn’t it to our advantage? We find products and services that we would utilize with less and less work, since these companies are coming to us. On the surface yes, the cost of contributing to the market of Big Data seems negligible compared to the benefit of using Google, but there are other factors that bring the balance of costs and benefits into question. In order to understand this relationship, we must understand the economics of this relationship by comparing all the costs to all the benefits, analyze how this relationship has affected society overall and realize the implications that these effects hold on our future.
There are many ways to look at the costs and benefits of using Google on our everyday lives. You can look at the difference between Googling something and using traditional methods in terms of money, time, ease of access, etc. To interrogate this through an experiment, I chose to look at the difference in terms of data emission and cognitive change.
To start off with, I completely wiped my search history, so that I could have a baseline reading of my data emission. Then I starting searching topics related to travelling to Las Vegas: Hotels in Vegas, things to do there, flights going there and leaving. Within three searches, Siren Servers had collected enough data on me that Google could autofill anything I was searching for with something related to Las Vegas, and treating this data as a commodity product gave me a net worth of $0.48 to Google according to the app PrivacyFix. By using Google, I emitted $0.48 of data that I would not have emitted if I had looked at brochures or talked to travel agents.
Finding the monetary cost of utilizing Google is relatively easy. The more difficult cost to find is cognitive cost. First, we must work through some baseline questions—what is cognitive cost? How would you measure it? How would you determine it? For the purposes of this analysis, we will take cognitive cost to mean the cognitive functions that are diminished due to utilizing search engines or social media platforms. One of the biggest functions that are affected is our ability to focus and retain information. Ever since the introduction of the book into popular culture, people have retrained their minds to be able to pay attention to one thing and to really focus on it. With the introduction of the internet, we are slowly losing this learned ability. Nicholas Carr presents this point in a lecture he gave at Harvard:
Gutenberg’s press didn’t so much invent the book, but rather pushed it out to a broader population…and as it did that, it also pushed this new way of thinking out to the masses, and this way of thinking, on the one hand, was solitary, was very concentrated, and it was all built around paying deep attention to one thing. This is something that was very rare in the course of human history. Our basic instinct is to keep shifting our attention amongst lots of things simultaneously, to make sure we don’t miss anything going on in the environment. So being deeply engaged in one thing is a deeply unnatural act, and it was the book that helped to bring that style of thinking to a broad portion of the population (Carr)
Whether this is true or not, the fact remains that everything that advanced us from our primitive roots–art, literature, science, engineering, etc.–involved an immense amount of focus in order to come about. Now, as we rely more and more on the internet to gather information, there is the hypothesis that we also lose our ability to deep focus–a hypothesis supported by Erping Zhu. At the University of Michigan, she did a study where two groups sat down and read the same online passage. The only difference between the passages was the amount of links embedded in the text. By measure of a written summary and a multiple choice test taken by the participants, Zhu found that as the number of links increased, comprehension of the text declined. Carr suggests that this is due to the way that we process memory. When we read something, it is stored in short term memory, which is only accessible for a few minutes and has a finite capacity. Once it is in short term memory, information can be processed into long term memory, where it can be recalled. When there are links in a text, the brain registers that, and these registries are stored as short term memory, taking up space that could have been used for information. This means that less of the information is stored in long term memory and can be recalled later.
What are the implications of this? One thing we can look at is time. While Google saves us time by taking us directly to the information we need, we lose time due to all of the links and advertisements presented to us. We get distracted by them, and either follow them to pages that do not benefit us, or spend time trying to refocus on the original information–usually this means rereading the page in an attempt to retain it. This also has a long term effect on our ability to process data. If we get into the habit of having to reread information multiple times before we can retain it, we stop utilizing our learned behavior of deep focus, and eventually will lose it. If this happens to one or two people, so be it, but in all likeliness, this epidemic will strike everyone who has a laptop, smart phone or e-reader. Society as a whole will lose the ability to think deeply, and all the benefits that come with it.
Every time we interact with Google we change Big Data, and it, in turn, changes us. However, a majority of users aren’t even aware of these consequences. This is where Balance comes in, an app that provides an updated, personalized cost benefits analysis of your time spent online. It gives the user a better indication of how their time online is really being spent. It acts as a little checkpoint, where people can reflect on if their time online is well spent, and maybe think twice about it.
The widespread use of the final app is important, because we are on the path to not just being familiar with technology and weaving it into our lives, but to becoming totally reliant on it. The modern generation–those who have had access to constant connection since their teenage years–is at the point where they either don’t realize how life would be without online interfaces, or can’t stand the idea of not using them, as is demonstrated by the social experiment, #1WkNoTech. Basically, the idea is that people should use technology to catalog how life is without technology. As said on the website, “Narrate your own version of #1WkNoTech, day-by-day: will it be heaven? will it be hell? Show us yourself enjoying a peaceful moment in the woods! Share the glories and horrors of battling tech withdrawal over Twitter! Post a pic of you throwing your phone away!” This gentleman found the experiment to be very aggravating, while others faced the challenge with humor or waited in agony until it was over. Despite how people reacted to the proposal, one thing was very clear: when these people thought about how life would be without technology, it was almost inconceivable to accept this as anything but an experiment. As it is now, we can’t seem to think of socializing, planning or sharing without the use of media, and as technology improves, our relationship with it will grow to be more dependant. Siren Servers and data hounds are now finding their way into the day to day things we do, thanks to the prevalence of sensors. In the not so distant future, there will be a point where even parking your car will need technological assistance.
All of these little things are gathering together to catapult us into a society that cannot separate itself from technology. We are on track to be just like the community in the novel Ebocloud, by Rick Moss. In this alternate reality, we see people who are totally dependent on a new form of social media, known as Ebocloud. Upon joining, people are grouped into families, or “Ebos.” Within these Ebos, they work to do good deeds, and with each task they undertake, they gain points known as Karmerits. These Karmerits function as a status marker, and the more Karmerits one has, the more respected they are in their Ebo–indeed, it is these Karmerits that determine things such as who the leader of the Ebo will be. The people in this book hardly interact with those outside of their Ebo. Just signing on to Ebocloud places people people in an Ebo, and once in an Ebo, people become fiercely prideful. Ellie, the main character in the book, initially is against this idea, recognizing how consuming it is. But inevitably, he gives in.
Week by week the prisoners of [the cloud] put up what fight they could. Some even contrived to fancy that they were still behaving as free men and had the power of choice. But actually, it would have been truer to say by this time, mid-August, the [cloud] had swallowed up everything and everyone. No longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of [cloud] and the emotions shared by all (229).
No matter what, eventually, everyone succumbs to the cloud
It is not uncommon for people to have tattoos representing their Ebo, and later in the book, we are introduced to the dToo, a tattoo that symbolizes ones Ebo and also allows for a two way connection between Ebocloud and the user. This is something we haven’t ever seen before. Similar to how a social media site can modify what shows up on your newsfeed and advertisements based on your search history and who you interact with, the dToo could modify everything you do based on your past actions, interactions and surroundings. Ellie chooses to brand himself with a dToo. His experience, from his perspective, was amazing. In the book, Ellie describes one experience where he is walking down the street and a dToo signal appears. He is hesitant to follow it at first, but upon encouragement from his friend Jared, he goes on the adventure, following the signals the dToo was sending without any question. When he finally reaches his destination, he realized the signals were leading him right to Charlotte, his lover who has been missing for quite a while. These directions were not given in response to a thought or a statement–instead, simply by analyzing his thoughts and actions, the dToo was able to conclude that Ellie would want to find Charlotte and therefore guided him to her.
In the novel, the consequences of the dToo are not really analyzed. However, a real-life version of a dToo is in the works, and with its introduction will come several questions we must consider. What if the dToo had been wrong? What if Ellie had not wanted to see Charlotte, or if seeing her was dangerous to him? What if it malfunctioned and gave him directions to someplace dangerous? What if the technology was modified that instead of offering guidance to the user, the dToo controlled him, and Ellie was forced against his will to follow the given directions? Or worse, what if someone found a way to hack into the dToo system, and was able to manipulate everyone who was branded? While the novel is a fiction book and neither these people nor this society really exist, these are hypotheticals we need to start thinking about because our society is on our way to this point. Of course, like all technology now, such as iPhones, Google Glass and FitBits, once this tattoo or the next big thing is introduced, everyone will need to have it. Within no time it will be as integral a part of society as anything we take for granted now.
Think back to the quote at the beginning of the paper. “When we add something this big into our lives, we’re going to give up something equally big” (Moss 342). With every piece of technology that becomes a part of our lives, we lose something important, whether we realize it or not. If we take the prototype of the app introduced earlier and expanded it to look at the costs and benefits of using sensors, FitBits, Google Glass and anything else you could think of, the costs of becoming reliant on these technologies is enormous. The line between human and machine is becoming blurred–phones and computers and devices are not so much becoming electronics but extensions of ourselves. And as we become more dependent, our ability to function fully without these devices–in the instance of a blackout, for example–decreases. With this in mind, next time you reach for your laptop or charge your iPhone, take a moment and think to yourself, “What is this costing me? What am I getting out of it? Is it really worth it?”
Carr, Nicholas. “The Shallows – What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.” WGBHF Forum. Harvard Book Store, Cambridge. 1 Dec. 2014. Lecture.
Hayles, Katherine. How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2012. N. pag. Print.
Moss, Rick. Ebocloud. New Orleans: Aqueous, 2013. Print.
Mayer-Schönberger, Viktor, and Kenneth Cukier. Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. Print.
#1wknotech.” 1wknotech. N.p., 10 Nov. 2014. Web. 11 Dec. 2014.